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The Elitism of the “Anti-Populists”

Pundits analyzing the “populist threat” often assume an audience that wants to defend the status quo. Presenting all political “outsiders” as merely dangerous, anti-populist literature tells us more about the role of public intellectuals than the movements it is meant to describe.

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras taking part in the Future of Europe debate at the European Parliament, September 11, 2018. European Union 2018 - European Parliament / Wikimedia.

Today it seems normal to think of “populism” in negative terms. Elite politicians warn us about the threat it poses to stability, articles in illustrious journals tell us about the rising “populist” threat to democracy, and pundits use the term to put both the far right and the radical left in the same basket, as just so many challengers to the status quo. Even if these figures lack any shared or scientific definition of populism, they each locate this phenomenon somewhere in terms of “lies” “demagogy”, ‘‘extremism’’ and “attempting to mislead the masses.” Yet this “anti-populist” punditry is itself far from innocent – and its effect in shaping how we think about “populism” has clear political implications.

Indeed, anti-populism doesn’t come from a vacuum. It’s the result of determined ideological interventions, designed to mask the radical history of this term and collapse it into its most negative contemporary expressions. Seeing how this pejorative definition of “populism” has been spread also allows us to question the role of punditry in informing public debate today, whether expressed by journalists, politicians, and think tanks, or by scholars like historians, sociologists, and political scientists. Though academic discussions of “populism” are far from one-sided, the political uses of this term since the 2008 crisis (and especially since the Brexit referendum and Donald Trump’s election in 2016) have given vent to a renewed cycle of anti-populist elitism.

Indeed, while academic definitions of “populism” remain contested, the ones that have fanned out into the public debate in recent decades primarily take their lead from the American historian and public intellectual Richard Hofstadter. While the term “populism” was widespread already in the nineteenth century, the discussions that inform today’s use of the term especially refer back to the 1950s. Historian Richard M. Roberts has aptly highlighted the importance of Hofstadter’s 1955 book Age of Reform, which “touched off an … ideologically charged and sometimes vituperative dispute … that raged in the pages of major journals and in the meeting rooms and hallways at historians’ conventions.”

Hofstadter’s intervention was notable as it can be understood as the dawn of academic anti-populism. He framed populism as a “provincial,” paranoid and “folkloric” style – in a word, a backward form of politics. This stance indicates the deeply political nature of “anti-populism.” The pejorative framing of “populism” is not organically linked to the term, or a simple expression of the academic consensus. Rather, it takes hold in specific historical junctures, in which it is able to spread both through academia and beyond, into the public realm.

An Alien Bacteria?

Contemporary anti-populism often opposes populism on moralistic grounds. On the “populist” side lies an array of negative signifiers such as chaos, insatiability and demagogy, and on the other, “anti-populist” side, positive signifiers such as democracy, pragmatism and stability. Anti-populism assumes elitist tones, arrogating itself a moral and political superiority as against people-centric discourses and demands for popular sovereignty. These latter are portrayed as folkloric, kitsch and worthy of contempt.

As the commentator Peter C Baker argues “often as not, populism sounds like something from a horror film: an alien bacteria that has somehow slipped through democracy’s defenses – aided, perhaps, by Steve Bannon or some other wily agent of mass manipulation – and is now poisoning political life, creating new ranks of populist voters among ‘us’ … Tellingly, most writing about populism presumes an audience unsympathetic to populism.” It thus tells us more about anti-populists than populism itself. In associating populism with irresponsibility, ignorance and demagogic agitation of the masses, political “anti-populism” safeguards the dominant politico-economic state of affairs, taken as normal.

More recent academic interventions have provided a more nuanced understanding of what “populism” could be taken to mean. In brief, the scholarship has detected a common denominator that can be observed across the populist mobilizations throughout history, in different parts of the world and in the different politico-ideological manifestations of this phenomenon. It seems that populism, progressive or regressive, left or right, rests increasingly and primarily on people-centrism and anti-elitism and secondarily on traditional left-right symbols and cultures, which have, of course, not disappeared.

Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde insists that the “field” has advanced into a phase in which populism “no longer lacks a clear definition.” Yet is this definition really so widespread in academic and public discourse? Contemporary punditry consistently takes populism to be a negative phenomenon, ignoring the five decades of empirical research and theoretical dialogue across multiple disciplines. In recent years, and especially since the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump, the word has appeared with accelerating frequency, serving to explain all sorts of political events; particularly, those events that are conventionally associated with something negative, something that stands at odds with the status-quo. This shows how deep the scar left by Hofstadter is.

It isn’t surprising that pundit discourse (and hence public opinion) don’t reflect on the academic consensus on what populism is, taking this as their starting point. The tension between “populism” as an object of social and historical study and as a word talked about in everyday discussions is, indeed, dense and opaque. Rather than superimpose the definition from one sphere onto the other, it is more productive to understand the ways populism is talked about in both and the complex interaction between the two. If it is important to scrutinize the role of “scientists” as bearers of truth, one should not underestimate their centrality in shaping public opinion. Experts are not an independent and autonomous body of society, but citizens with beliefs of their own, who hold positions that can diffuse and canonize these convictions.

Whatever the “scientific” standards one follows, there is always an additional “leftover” – namely the perspective, related to our own subjectivity, context and ideological assumptions, which influences how one sees political phenomena. This is also true of discussions of “populism.” Usually debated within narrowly liberal-democratic and Western-centric elitist frameworks, the question is typically posed in terms of “how to prevent the escalation of populism,” how to provide a “remedy to this pathology of modern democracy” and how to “preserve or restore the hitherto existing political order.” In other words, populism is (stereo)typically understood as an “anomalous,” “abnormal” turn in Western politics, that needs to be combatted.

Experts’ Discourse

In the last ten years or so there has been a surge in publications on populism. A large proportion of this comes from academia – scholarship that engages with a literature developed by historians, sociologists and political scientists across half a century . Yet many of these publications represent something else. They come from commentators, journalists, politicians, think tanks, and even superstar-scholars. With this being a “hot” issue, these latter are called on to provide their perspective on the basis of their recognition and fame rather than research itself. This type of publication resembles a “popular science” that often ignores the recent advances in scholarship – more often than not, these are ideological interventions, which are often people-sceptic and pro-establishment.

A brief overview of recent publications indicates how often populism is framed as “the revolt against liberal democracy”. Yascha Mounk’s recent pamphlet is titled The People Vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It, while William Galston’s is titled Anti-Pluralism: the Populist Threat to Liberal Democracy. Such works expose their political orientation right from the cover page. At least these authors ultimately make clear the political objectives inspiring the battle over the definition of populism, depending on which conception of democracy one favors.

Why do their views matter? Well, there is a considerable interaction between public opinion and expert discourse – especially as experts hold “powerful” positions that can influence the public. For instance, Yascha Mounk was until recently executive director of the Institute for Global Change, a center that is owned by another outspoken anti-populist — Tony Blair. Another recent example was the Guardian’s series “The New Populism,” which offered a prime example of how the pundit and academic spheres interact. Academics working on populism were called to provide their insights, yet the participants also included Tony Blair, Hillary Clinton and former Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi. But aren’t these the perfect representation of what populists call “the elite”? Each is a representative of “the extreme center,” whose democratic legitimacy has been eroded over the last three decades through the post-democratic consensus between left and right.

The conceptualization of the political space in the Guardian quiz seems to have shifted towards the Right, excluding many cases of left-wing populism while portraying centrists and progressive neoliberals as on the Left of the political spectrum. The “populism” standing as the “enemy” in this series was, predominantly, right-wing populism, whereas the “people” was portrayed in its liberal-democratic version.

As Ronan Burtenshaw and Anton Jäger put it a thorough critique of the Guardian series, “the increasing border traffic between journalism and political science seems rather more concerned with raising it as a specter. The Guardian’s populism series is a case-in-point, seeking not so much to shed light on populism as to define it as the enemy of decent, liberal politics. It is less a reflection on a phenomenon than a reflex against it”.

Portraying populism as the opposite of liberal democracy may also point to a more hidden divide, at the core of Western-liberal thought – one that that sets “reason” on one side and “emotions” on the other. On the one hand lies pragmatism, policy, justification and argumentation, and on the other the irrational mob, the loud and passionate politicians. But when was passion absent from politics, or any other collective activity? Are these “expert” leaders not themselves driven by “passions”? It seems more like this vision of “reason” (or its particular, technocratic form) is a recent development, rooted in the professionalization of politics itself.

The Effects of Anti-Populist “Hype”

The offensive against “populism” is visible everywhere. Political elites such as European Commission chiefs Jean-Claude Juncker and José Barroso have called it the biggest threat to Europe; an influential publication like Der Spiegel included Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras on its list of the “10 Most Dangerous Politicians”’ of 2012 next to figures like Geert Wilders, Viktor Orbán and Marine le Pen; in tune with the good-old US propaganda, the BBC photoshopped Jeremy Corbyn standing in front of the Kremlin “to look more Russian;” mainstream Spanish press accused Podemos of wanting to transform the country into Venezuela; European Budget Commissioner Günther Oettinger even criticized the Italian electorate for failing to back the established parties, saying that “that financial markets would show Italians how to vote.”

This descriptive maneuver which places a plethora of antithetical political phenomena under the rubric of “populism” allows for them all to be banalized through a single act of demonization. One should wonder whether Tsipras and Le Pen, Corbyn and Orbán have more that unites them rather than divides them. Focusing on key similarities, such as the patterns of rhetorical style which juxtaposes “the people” against “the elite,” should hardly be used to downplay the critical differences between these leaders, movements or projects.

Nonetheless, the important question, here, is not only a matter of whether alarmist discourses that demonize all and any political challengers are correctly referring to the “real” populists. Nor is it especially crucial to understand whether it does so due to political motivations. The critical issue to focus on is the consequences of anti-populist discourse, which is evidently loaded with ideological undertones.

Is all this too much fuss over a ‘buzzword’? As Baker again puts it, “it is hard to deny that much talk of populism obscures more than it illuminates…”. Many advocate abandoning the term, as it causes much more confusion and frustration than clarification. The term has become a “red flag,” and to try and reclaim it, or even further debate its meaning, may seem pointless. But should we discard the notion of “populism”? Baker aptly points out that contemporary political discourses about populism “tell us more about anti-populist crusaders than any real-life populist parties or voters”.

Without downplaying the potential dangers that certain types of populist politics could bring about, it is paramount to understand the consequences of the use and abuse of the concept of populism. In this respect, Yannis Stavrakakis stresses the performative function in the interaction among the spheres analyzed here: “When we study populism, we talk about populism, we articulate meanings in language and discourse, and language is never innocent. In the long run it naturalizes significations.”

This is also a matter of who is speaking about populism, and to what end. As Benjamin De Cleen, Jason Glynos, and Aurelien Mondon rightly insist, “we must also turn our attention towards how the term is used, by whom and why, and with what performative effects.” Pundit discourse is a factory that reproduces “common sense,” but – as Stavrakakis points out – it also requires a certain “critical (self)reflexivity.” This also has clear political implications. As Burtenshaw and Jäger argue, “political science should not follow liberalism down this cul-de-sac, turning itself into a handmaiden for increasingly absurd rationalizations of political failure.”

Yet the hype around populism has led it to be read in hysterical terms, even to the point of making the populism/anti-populism divide more prominent than traditional political cleavages. With academia taking on more of the characteristics of an “industry” in recent years, the output on this theme often seems to take a “quantity over quality” approach.

Without omitting the specificities of the “current wave” of populism, located in the age of collapsing neoliberalism, it is also important to bear in mind the consequences of alarmism. Words matter. That’s especially true when elitist anti-populist discourse is employed by the very people whom anti-establishment challengers and extremists identify as the caste responsible for the malaise of our times. This elitist “reason” is, indeed, proving anything but “effective” amidst the ongoing economic crisis.

Structural Failures

Paradoxically, where pundits denounce populists for simplifying complex political and economic questions, they, too apply simplified analyses to a phenomenon so complex that the battle over its meaning and ambivalent relation to democracy has continued for half a century. Confronting structural failures and crises in our democracies will take more than just blaming the populist outsider. This strategy not only shifts the focus from what has really undermined democratic institutions over the past three decades, but threatens merely to perpetuate the malign consequences which we are already experiencing.

Instead of declaring that we live in “populist times” we should instead locate the populism debate within the context of a collapsing neoliberal regime unable to solve its own crisis. It is becoming increasingly clear that we have passed into an era in which the left/right axis cannot alone interpret the structural transformations underway and the articulation of politics around a populist/anti-populist cleavage.

In the midst of this crisis – which seems far more than economic in character – populism captures social fragmentation and political disillusionment. Cutting across narrow class interests, it mobilizes and ultimately constructs a new political subject. Its institutive power urges us to look beyond its particularistic content and pay attention to its universalizing and politicizing function.

For centuries, the task of politics has been to create a people, (re-)draw political frontiers and delimit a community. This is not a property of right-wing populism alone. For as long as this task is left to the radical right, exclusionary ideologies will become more and more mainstream. Yet “the people” is not doomed to be closed and backward-looking and “the enemy” does not have to be the immigrant, the Muslim, the Jew. On the contrary, the political subject can be a forward looking “people” of solidarity and the enemy could be those who economically exploit the marginalized and poor. Nor does resentment have to be the only political emotion expressed by populism. There is Donald Trump, but also Bernie Sanders. Euphoria, hope and love are emotions, too, and they can constitute the basis for new political horizons.

When public intellectuals treat “populism” in merely moralist and alarmist terms, they are not just defending the status quo. They also hamper our ability to locate the changing organizational patterns of party politics, identify the rise of new political cleavages rooted in a decline of traditional economic identities and political identification, and understand the changing nature of class antagonism and the complex processes of collective identity formation. Yet things do not have to be this way, and we can reflect more on the language we use. Perhaps if pundits refrain from an intellectual reductionism that collapses all populist phenomena together in the name of defending liberalism, that would be a good start.